It seems that the big story in F1 at the moment (tyres aside) is the poor performance of two of the sport’s most famous teams, McLaren and Williams.
For McLaren, 2013 is turning out to be among the very worst of McLaren’s periodical dips in form. McLaren have been known to start seasons badly on occasion, but there was always a sense that they would come back — and they did. This year, the problem seems deeper. There are grumbles about problems with the wind tunnel, and rumours of board-level turmoil within the company. The team seems resigned to spending the year in the midfield.
With Williams, this year represents a hugely disappointing backward step after a relatively strong 2012. Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix last year, and the team regularly scored points. Now they are firmly the worst of the established teams, with only Caterham and Marussia behind them.
This situation reminds me a lot of the 2004 season. That year, once again McLaren and Williams stunned commentators by tumbling backwards through the grid.
The situation was so bad for McLaren that journalist Bob McKenzie said to Ron Dennis that if McLaren won a race that season he would run naked around Silverstone. Unfortunately for Bob McKenzie and everyone else that had to witness it, McLaren did win that year with an inspired drive by Kimi Räikkonen in Belgium.
It was no coincidence that both McLaren and Williams struggled in 2004. They had both come out an intense three-way battle for the championship in 2003. It evidently knocked the stuffing out of both teams, who lost out to Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.
As it turned out, 2003 was to be the last hurrah for a proud era of domination for McLaren and Williams, which had lasted since 1980. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher were unstoppable, and both McLaren and Williams struggled to adapt.
Around 2003, McLaren were having trouble with their car development. The MP4-18 is probably one of Formula 1’s most high-profile and expensive failures — a radical car that had so many problems that it never raced. Despite running an updated version of their 2002 car, the MP4-17D, McLaren managed to make a decent fight out of it in 2003.
For 2004, a “debugged version” of the failed MP4-18 was raced. But it was still a failure — slow and unreliable. It stands out as one of Adrian Newey’s career low points. McLaren were never able to smooth out the rough edges of Adrian Newey’s radical ideas, something that Red Bull have achieved to perfection.
At the same time, McLaren were building their space-age Technology Centre. It is part factory, part vanity project.
This was a period where McLaren were trying to build on their past successes. Their plans were ambitious. But their subsequent results have failed to justify their grandiose approach. For a team with such massive resources, McLaren have been generally underachieving for the past ten years.
Things have got so bad that McLaren’s relationship with their long-term engine partner Mercedes has soured to the point where a split now seems inevitable. Just a few years ago McLaren were essentially the factory Mercedes team.
McLaren have won just one Drivers’ Championship this century. They have had no Constructors’ Championship victories since 1998. It’s a far cry from their 1980s glory years.
In fairness to McLaren, they tend to be there or thereabouts near the front — normally 2nd or 3rd in the championship. Even the 2009 season, which started terribly for McLaren, was salvaged.
The teams that do win championships have their off years too. McLaren always point to their consistency. They are always near the front challenging for championships year in, year out.
However, this year they certainly are not in the title hunt. They currently languish in 6th in the Constructors’ Championship. They are being outclassed by Force India. McLaren, once the de facto Mercedes factory team, are now the worst of the Mercedes-engined cars.
Williams fell from grace at exactly the same time as McLaren. But Williams’ decline has been much greater, and the team has never genuinely challenged for the championship in the past ten years.
Like McLaren, Williams took a radical path for their 2004 car. The “walrus nose” car looked unlike any other. Seldom in modern years has a Formula 1 car looked so unique. But technical director Patrick Head never fancied the idea. It didn’t take long for the design to disappear after a mediocre start to the season. But ditching the radical design didn’t help matters.
Meanwhile, the team’s relationship with its engine supplier BMW was becoming increasingly acrimonious. Williams blamed the engine for the lack of results. BMW blamed the chassis. A split became inevitable.
BMW bought the Sauber team for a largely successful stint that transformed the midfield team into a race-winning outfit that punched above its weight. The grand plan collapsed in 2009 and BMW left the sport — but not before shaming the Williams team, which continued to languish in midfield mediocrity.
Since then, Williams has lacked the resources to take the fight to the teams with manufacturer (or megabucks soft drink company) backing. The team is no longer the championship-vacuuming juggernaut it once was. Today it is a plucky privateer; the little team that could — if only it actually could.
Like McLaren, Williams is also facing behind-the-scenes turmoil. Two potential successors to Frank Williams, Adam Parr and Toto Wolff, have come and gone. Now the baton is set to be passed to Frank Williams’ daughter, Claire Williams.
I am struck by just how similar the stories of McLaren and Williams are. Both had great success in the 1980s and 1990s. But both fell from grace in 2004 after going radical. Both have continued to struggle ever since. Both have fallen out with their engine suppliers to disastrous effect. Both face internal difficulties.
McLaren’s mighty resources have ensured that they have been able to hold a candle to the championship-winning teams for longer. I don’t doubt that they’ll bounce back from their current extreme dip. But after 15 years since their last Constructors’ Championship victory, it’s difficult to see when the next one will be.
For Williams, you sense that simply surviving will be the closest they come to victory any time soon.